4 May 2020
By Göran R Buckhorn
Here is another article in The Dry Season Bottom-of-the-Barrel Series. This piece is how HTBS editor Göran R Buckhorn managed to save an old invitation from Peter Coni.
In March 2008, the National Rowing Foundation (NRF) opened its Rowing Hall of Fame in the building that used to house the Mystic Seaport Museum’s G. W. Blunt White Library. The Museum’s research library had moved across the street to the newly renovated Collections Research Center in the old Rossie Velvet Mill on Greenmanville Avenue in Mystic. In the building of “the Hall” was also the rowing exhibition Let Her Run, a display with magnificent artefacts mostly from the private collections of rowing historians Tom Weil and Bill Miller.
With a location of its own, the NRF held meetings and gatherings in the Hall, including inducting rowers into the National Rowing Hall of Fame and several Rowing History Forums. These events always attracted a lot of people. Rowers from near and far came to visit the Hall and Let Her Run, which were open seven days a week during the Museum’s high season. These were happy times.
But happiness can be fleeting. On 1 September 2014, the Rowing Hall of Fame closed its doors. Mystic Seaport Museum had decided to tear down the building that housed the NRF Hall and exhibit to be able to build a new exhibition building and Museum entrance.
Though I have never been connected to the NRF (as a foreigner how could I?), I signed up as a volunteer for the organisation after I had a brief chat with its head, Hart Perry in the autumn of 2000. At the time of the Hall shutting down, Hart had passed away (in February 2011); it would have broken his heart to see the Hall and exhibit leave Mystic. With the Hall and all its artefacts having to move out and not another location to go to, it came to a few people connected to NRF and others, including me, to get the wonderful material out of the building before the caterpillars and bulldozers started their nasty work to demolish the building.
We were working hard in evenings and on weekends. While it was easy to empty out the display cases in the Let Her Run exhibit – most of these artefacts went back to Tom’s and Bill’s homes – it was more difficult to sort the material in the so-called back rooms where the ‘archives’ were held. During the six and a half years the Hall had been up and running at Mystic Seaport Museum, a lot of ‘rowing stuff’ had been donated to the NRF, and material had accumulated in the archives. There were old rowing magazines (tons of them!), pamphlets, pictures, photographs, prints, pins, buttons, medals, post cards, regatta programmes (many HRR programmes), old oars, sliding seats, an old rowing machine, ties, books, plaques, plates, cups, caps, trophies, badges – yes, anything that you as a collector of rowing memorabilia, or a hoarder, would like to keep.
Everything in the building needed to be out by 1 December 2014. At the end of November – while an armada of bulldozers and caterpillars could be spotted on the horizon – we had to call in some extra volunteers to move out the last stuff from the building. We had several piles on the floor: save, maybe keep, toss and maybe… yes, what? I got worried when the ‘toss pile’ grew larger. ‘Are we really sure that nothing of this should be saved?’ the hoarder within me thought. The greatest hoarder of the rowing history gentry was Hart. He did not throw anything away. I think his wife Gillian was happy when the Museum had allowed Hart and NRF to take over the building at the Museum: Hart had found a place outside his home to stockpile his stuff.
Without really knowing what it was, I grabbed some envelopes and papers in the ‘toss pile’. This must be worth saving, I thought. And it was.
One piece of ephemera that I salvaged from the ‘toss pile’ was a 1985 invitation to Hart from the illustrious Peter Coni, chairman of Henley Royal Regatta, where Hart was a Steward. As a matter of fact, Hart had been the first non-Commonwealth citizen to be elected a Henley Steward. For those of you who are not familiar with Coni, read Tim Koch’s wonderful 2017 article about him here.
On 20 November 1985, Coni had his 50th birthday and was going to celebrate it with family and friends with a Black Tie dinner at Maxim’s de Paris in London.
I don’t know if Hart attended Coni’s party, but I’m sure it was a blast.
Most of the NRF’s Rowing Hall of Fame is still in a warehouse outside Boston. However, some artefacts, including oars and a boat, are now being installed in the Benderson Family Finish Tower at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota, Florida. I am sure when this blasted pandemic is eventually over, rowers will be able to get a preview of how a Rowing Hall of Fame can look … again.